Should a wrecking ball hit the Century Building at 202 S. State St., there will be a bittersweet moment in which modern architecture’s debt to Chicago will be starkly revealed.
The falling bricks will reveal the underlying structure of the 16-story building designed by Holabird and Roche: a network of steel beams and columns. The masonry only had the task of shielding the residents from summer heat and rain, winter cold and snow.
This combination of a metal frame and curtain walls has spawned countless skyscrapers around the world—after being conceived and fleshed out in Chicago’s drafting rooms. Nineteenth-century Chicagoans were very proud of that.
“Chicago is a city of ‘skyscrapers,'” reported the Morris Dictionary of Chicago in 1891. “While other cities may boast isolated specimens of great architectural creation, no other city can match the general high standard of elegant and massive buildings claim.”
The Loop was then an open-air museum of Chicago’s groundbreaking architecture. But the opening chapter vanished when William Le Baron Jenney’s 1885 Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931.
A similar fate seems to await not only the 1915 Century Building, but also the 1913 Consumers Building at 220 S. State St., designed by Jenney’s firm Jenney, Mundie & Jensen after his death, marking the skyscraper’s sunset formative time.
A $52 million bill moves through Congress that would level both skyscrapers. The government acquired the buildings in 2007 as a security buffer and potential expansion of federal office space behind the adjacent Dirksen US Courthouse.
“These are two of the last buildings to represent the Chicago School of Architecture and these early skyscrapers in Chicago,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.
While the written word cannot replace direct experience, the motivation of the skyscraper’s pioneers can be glimpsed in the story under the 1888 Tribune’s headline: “The Sacrifice of Space For Light. ”
“Dark rooms aren’t rented out, so they’re not worth building. The question is how to get the maximum amount of rentable space in the smallest amount of space, and each lot has its own characteristics.”
Chicago architects then worked, as architects do today, at the interface between economic opportunity and design. The city had been rapidly rebuilt after the fire of 1871, and just as quickly demand for office space and storefronts outstripped supply. The outward expansion would meet rising land values, so the inner city moguls opted to replace existing buildings with taller ones
But building by the age-old method of stacking layers of blocks presented another problem. Brick walls must be thicker for taller buildings, such as the 1891, 16-story Monadnock Building at 53 W. Jackson Blvd. you can see.
Upon entering, a visitor could feel that time has stood still. The doorway is recessed into a 6 foot thick wall at ground level. The north wing windows are narrow because cutting into masonry reduces its load-bearing capacity.
The windows of the southern part are larger. This part of the building was added in 1893 and constructed from metal frames and curtain walls according to Jenney’s formula.
Jenney studied civil engineering in Paris and dismantled bridges during his civil war. As a result, he was familiar with metal structures, which he brought to bear on a problem associated with his commission to design the home insurance building
“The order also required a maximum number of well-lit small offices above the second floor, which Mr. Jenney knew would require small piers – probably smaller than permitted if they were of ordinary masonry,” the Tribune recalled in Jenney’s obituary from 1907.
“To address this dilemma, it was necessary to find a material capable of supporting a greater load per unit section. Architects had previously had to enclose an iron column within a brick pillar, and the increased use of this idea along with another – making each floor a separate entity – marked the solution to the problem. ”
Jenney then used structural steel. He has long been known as the father of the skyscraper, and has been the subject of attempts to strip him of that title for just as long. Louis Sullivan, the Chicago School’s most celebrated architect, began as a draftsman in Jenney’s office. He said Jenney is “not an architect, except as a matter of courtesy. His real job was that of an engineer. ”
That didn’t stop Sullivan from adopting Jenney’s method, which was inherited by later Chicago architects. Holabird and Roche used it when designing the Century Building. The floor-to-ceiling windows greeted visitors with a shower of sunshine.
The grandstand called it “an unusually attractive structure” and greeted news of its construction with an architectural display. It showed the office floors enjoying the benefits of classic Chicago windows: large expanses of glass flanked by small windows.
Its tenants included Local 66 of the Elevator Operators Union and the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which told advertisers how the magazines were doing. A giant electric sign announced the building’s Romas restaurant.
But before long architectural fashions changed. The sleek simplicity of the Century Building was followed by the flourishes of modern art Skyscraper. Others anachronistically mimicked historical styles.
“The steel skeletons of office buildings need be expressed no more than the bones of critics hasty enough to make the statement,” the Tribune noted. The 1925 headquarters bore the buttresses of a medieval cathedral.
But a younger generation of European architects was still fascinated by the Chicago School. Among them was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German with no formal training who studied the work of Sullivan and others from afar.
In 1937 he was appointed director of the architecture program at the Armor Institute, which shortly thereafter became the Illinois Institute of Technology. Mies would bring the Chicago School to its logical conclusion: glass skyscrapers framed by exposed structural steel.
“I believe that architecture has little or nothing to do with the invention of interesting forms or with personal whims,” Mies taught. “I think architecture belongs to the epoch, not to the individual; and that at best it touches and expresses the innermost fabric of the civilization from which it springs.”
Architects far and wide said “amen,” and so Chicago was restored as the architectural capital of the world. One of Mies’ projects was the Dirksen Federal Building on Dearborn Street. In front of it was the Century Building, and Mies, who carefully assessed the surroundings of his buildings, took this into account in his 1959 site planning.
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But the Century Building did not fare well in the years that followed. It was losing tenants and was in severe disrepair by the time the General Services Administration took control of the building. One of the tasks of this federal authority is to safeguard the existence of historical buildings.
A developer proposed converting the Century Building into artist studios and living quarters. But judges at the nearby Dirksen building raised safety concerns and ditched the plan.
Preservation Chicago is working on an alternative – offering archival storage for organizations without their own historical record keeping facilities. Archived papers fare better in the absence of sunlight, so bricking up the buildings’ rear windows would facilitate this use, and possibly allay concerns about the Dirksen Building as well.
As Miller of Preservation Chicago puts it, “Turning off access to a painting just means it goes to another museum where it can still be seen.
“But blocking access to a building means losing the opportunity to experience it. It will be reduced to a heap of rubble.”
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